At some point in our lives, we’ll probably be scandalized by the behavior of someone else—maybe even a fellow believer. What then? Tim Chester has said, “When you discover that someone in your church has sinned, your own heart will be exposed.” We tend to think at such times that all eyes are on the person who sinned, but no. God’s eyes are also on the people responding to that sin. Are they more eager to condemn or restore?
That’s one of the issues on the table when Jesus has dinner with Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in the 1st century. A sinful woman comes into the room where they’re meeting and does the unthinkable. “As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them” (Luke 7:38).
If there’s a more tense and awkward scene in the Gospels, it’s hard to know what it is. The episode has everyone holding his breath, looking around, turning red, and wondering, “How can I slither out of here right now?” Indeed, Simon is thinking to himself, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).
Men like Simon avoided contact with “impure” people lest they become spiritually “infected” by them. Moreover, letting one’s hair down was reserved for the bedroom; for women to do it in public was grounds for divorce. Women in that culture were obligated to cover their hair in public. So, on the surface, everything here looks highly inappropriate—the hair, the tears, the touching. It’s almost as if the woman is treating Jesus as one of her clients. But unlike others in the room, Jesus interprets what she does as a loving act rather than an erotic act.
Everyone in the room expects Jesus to be scandalized, but he sees what’s happening in her heart. There’s nothing erotic going on at all. What Simon doesn’t realize is that Jesus—who can hear his thoughts, too—is testing him. How far does God’s compassion go? How about love? How about forgiveness? Jesus is testing us, too. How far does ours go?
The encounter also provides a sharp contrast between those (like Simon) who merely analyze Jesus, coming to him in a cold, clinical, and detached way, and those (like this woman) who adore Jesus, coming to him in a warm, relational, and personal way. In fact, she turns out to be a better host than Simon, and it’s not even her house! In the end, she sacrifices her prize possession—a costly alabaster flask of perfume—to honor Jesus and his grace. The heart of the contrast, says Jesus, is that some people see themselves as spiritually self-sufficient, while others see themselves as spiritually needy. Jesus comes for the latter.
In dramatic fashion, then, we learn that sinners welcome Jesus because Jesus welcomes sinners. The grace of acceptance comes first, and the grace of transformation follows. Religious folks tend to get that exactly backward. That’s why “the other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’” (Luke 7:49). Now, that’s the right question to ask! Have you answered it yet? Jesus is God with us. God in human flesh. God revealing God. And he gladly welcomes you into his presence when you come to realize that you need his grace, too.
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